64. Treehouse of Horror III

“I was strolling through the gas one day…”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 29 October 1992, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Thursday 3 September 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
  • First draft: Al Jean & Mike Reiss (part one); Jay Kogen & Wallace Wolodarsky (part two); Sam Simon & Jon Vitti (part three)
  • Writing staff: Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern, Conan O’Brien, Frank Mula, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein
  • Storyboard: Carlos Baeza, Jeffrey A Meyers
  • Animation director: Carlos Baeza

The first Halloween special was a novelty. The second turned it into a highlight. The third made it a tradition.

As before, we get three fine short stories joined together with some half-hearted linking material. None of the tales are particularly scary and one has nothing whatsoever to do with Halloween, but they’re all exceptionally told and beautifully produced, while the linking scenes of the family throwing a huge Halloween party (a bemusing sight to people in the UK) are soon over with. The first story, Clown Without Pity, is the most entertaining thanks simply to the idea of pairing the malevolent Krusty doll with Homer rather than Bart. The sight of a grown-up being terrified by a child’s toy is far more fun and over-the-top than were a youngster persecuted in the same way – not least as it means we get to see a terrified Homer flee his bath and run naked through the kitchen.

“There goes the last lingering thread of my heterosexuality,” observes Patty. The second story, King Homer, is the weak link, being a film pastiche and not a “scary” story or even a cautionary fable, but it’s gorgeous to look at. The third story, Dial ‘Z’ For Zombies, has gallons of blood and lots of running about, and is all done with much aplomb (how the writers must have enjoyed hitting on the idea of parodying zombie movies). You admire its audacity rather than its humour, though it does have the sharpest line in the whole episode (“Dad! You killed the zombie Flanders!” “He was a zombie?”). 7

The best Simpsons Halloween stories are always those where the family behave as normal and everything else around them goes crazy. That’s the case in the first and third of these tales, especially in the third where pretty much the entire population of Springfield turns into a zombie. It’s entirely plausible that Bart would be intrigued by a book of spells, or for Homer to forget Bart’s birthday, and this is why the consequences, although far-fetched, never come across on screen as lazy or stupid. Both these stories have one foot in reality. Well, a toe at least. By contrast the middle story has Homer as a giant ape, but it also has Mr Burns and Smithers (their first appearance in this season), so all is not lost. 7

Locations and design
Animated in sepia tones and drained almost entirely of colour, the middle story is a homage to the 1933 film King Kong, executed with thought and taste rather than just slapped on the screen. It doesn’t just look like a Hollywood epic from between the wars; it feels like one too. Some of the locations in this 1930s ‘Springfield’ are among the most evocative the show has created. Like in the Streetcar episode, this is a pastiche that wouldn’t be anywhere near as persuasive were everything except the dialogue not done with absolute seriousness. 9

Pardon My Zinger
The return of Mr Burns to The Simpsons means a commensurate return in gags. Reassuring Marge that he wouldn’t dream of not escorting her ashore to Ape Island, he announces: “We wouldn’t think of going without the bait. Er, that is, the bait-hing beauty. The bathing beauty, yes. I covered that up pretty well!” Unable to throw a gas bomb more than a metre of so from his own face, we see him getting high on the fumes and start prancing delightfully through the jungle, trilling: “I was strolling through the gas one day!”

Plus there’s his response after ‘Homer’ escapes from the theatre and runs amok in Springfield: “I’m dreading the reviews, I can tell you that.” 8

Special guests
There aren’t any, but a cameo or two, deployed in the right place – as per James Earl Jones – would have added a bit of spice to what is meant to be a special episode. 5

There’s a lavish amount of incidental music as you’d expect, but the cue that sticks most in the mind is the corny “that’s all folks” sting that sounds at the very end of parts one and two, as the screen fades to black in the shape of a heart. If nothing else, it very neatly deflates any trace of pretension still lingering in the air after the preceding homages. Equally on-the nose (and just as funny) is when Marge rings up to complain about the Krusty doll. Yes, it’s another “ironic music while put on hold” joke, in this case the song Everybody Loves a Clown by Gary Lewis & The Playboys. Marge’s nonplussed reaction helps turn a good gag into a great one. 9

Homer’s full-throated onslaught against the zombies tottering along the school corridor – “Show’s over, Shakespeare!” – is a sound to behold, particularly as his character has just spent the whole of the middle section of the episode communicating only through grunts and whimpers. The first story mingles grunts with actual words and phrases (“The doll’s trying to kill me and the toaster’s been laughing at me!”) which makes Dan Castellaneta’s performance even more enjoyable. 7

Animation direction
There’s a gimmick used during the first story where the screen fades to black after almost every scene. It’s unusual for The Simpsons but really helps make this chunk of the episode feel out of the ordinary (which is precisely the point). Less subtle are the flocks of zombies and the sight of a giant ape on the prowl in a sprawling metropolis. Halloween episodes are meant to be a visual spectacle, however, and Carlos Baeza and his team handle both the light touches and huge set-pieces with a breezy confidence. 8

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
Zombies didn’t have the same pop cultural ubiquity in 1992 that they do now. At least one viewer believes this episode was the first time he had ever seen them depicted on television. So while the gags seem obvious now, they didn’t back then and it was an inspired move on the part of the writers to dip into this particular well of gore rather settle on rehashing more Gothic horror. It’d be mean to dock points for a lack of subtlety in an episode meant to be one spoof after another, and even the opening nod to Hitchcock is brief enough to be forgivable. Nonetheless the King Kong segment never quite overcomes the fact that it is at heart a movie pastiche and, were this Strictly Come Dancing, would lose marks for turning up in the wrong costume in the wrong week. 7

Emotion and tone
It’s not as tonally coherent as Treehouse of Horror II, thanks – again – to the King Kong segment. But there’s a nostalgic feel to the whole thing, including Homer’s pre-titles “warning”, which compensates for some of the rough edges. All the main reference points (The Twilight Zone, King Kong, Night of the Living Dead) are in the near-past, which also helps. 7

Verdict: 72%
The lowest score for a Halloween special so far, but only just. The challenge for these episodes would always be meeting the sky-high expectations of viewers, and this one doesn’t quite manage it.

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